Midnight at the Pera Palace; The Birth of Modern Istanbul

Midnight at the Pera Palace; The Birth of Modern Istanbul by Charles King. W.W. Norton, paper 2015.

Istanbul’s Pera Palace Hotel opened in 1892. It was first-class, serving those travelers who had taken the Orient Express, a luxury train that ran between Paris and Istanbul.  Charles King has made the hotel a focus of his cultural history of the city, roughly from the outbreak of the Great War to the first decade after the Second World War.

Capital of the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul (Constantinople) in 1892 ruled over much of the Balkans, Anatolia, and the Arab Middle East. The Empire, however, had not prospered during the European imperial age, as had the Russian, British, French, Austro-Hungarian, and, belatedly, the German Empires. It was known by historians of the time and since as the “sick man of Europe.”

Initially neutral in the Great War, it joined the Central Powers – Germany, and Austria – in 1915. King suggests that there were good reasons for doing so. At that point, it looked as though the Central Powers were winning. Germany had been the Ottoman Empire’s major trading partner before WWI. It had been supported by the Germans during its prolonged struggle against Russia and Britain in the Balkans. The Turkish armies had been trained by Germans. However, many of its minorities – Armenians, Greeks, and Orthodox Christians – remained loyal to Russia, for long the protector of Orthodox Christianity in the region.

The Ottoman Empire surrendered days before the Armistice on 11 November 1918. Istanbul (Constantinople) was occupied by British, French, and Italian troops until 1923. Its former Middle-Eastern provinces were taken over as League of Nation “mandates” by the French and British.  In that same year – 1923, the Republic of Turkey was declared and the emperor departed under the protection of a British warship.

In May of 1919 Mustafa Kemal, a successful military officer in the Ottoman Army, checked into the Pera Palace Hotel. A staunch Turk nationalist, he was in the city to advocate his country’s remaining in the War until Smyrna, Turkey’s second city, and much of the province of Thrace had been “liberated” from Greek occupation. Eventually some 213,000 Greeks were forcibly evacuated from Smyrna, and it became a Turkish city, which it never had been during the heyday of the Ottoman Empire.

King’s account of the early post-war years is familiar. But there is much that is new in his chapter entitled “Moscow on the Bosporus.” Istanbul received 185,000 Russian refugees who fled the Bolsheviks when they occupied Crimea in 1917.         Turkey, generally welcomed these Russians as victims of the Red Army, but also as educated, valuable émigrés. Some eventually ended up begging on the streets of Istanbul and Turkish goodwill came to their assistance. Most important, however, was an organized relief effort financed by the victorious Allies.

Leon Trotsky, his wife, and daughter were perhaps the most famous of these Russian refugees to land in Istanbul. Trotsky was given a residence just outside the city where he lived for four years. His permanent exile and assassination occurred in Mexico in 1940. One of the men who carried out the assassination was Leonid Eitigon, a Soviet Intelligence Officer who had been stationed in Istanbul after the Revolution to track those many Russian refugees.

The First World War, it was hoped, would be the war to end all wars. Post-war peace treaties attempted to divide the defeated empires, into separate nations dominated by a majority ethnic community with as few minorities as possible. The Ottoman Empire was a victim of that idle, even though it had been known for its tolerance of ethnic minorities. Thus 1,000,000 Ottoman Greeks left for Europe and 500,000 Moslems, mostly from western Thrace, exited to Ottoman lands.

This disruption of well-established minority communities was a form of ‘ethnic cleansing’ as was ‘Turkification’. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, President of the Republic of Turkey from 1923 to his death in 1938, imposed a ban on all non-Turkish clubs, businesses, and even philanthropic organizations. Everyone had to have a Turkish name. The owner of the Pera Palace Hotel, a Greek, was forced to sell the hotel to the government.

Atatürk, “father of the Turks,” King claims, came to resemble the fascist dictators elsewhere in Europe. He was much enthralled with Russia’s forced pace of industrialization and economic planning. Turks heard little about the virtues of the liberal economic model and its entrepreneurs.

So Istanbul became more Turkish, and more Moslem in the inner-war period. But Islamic Istanbul also received a dose of the “modern.” New bars, restaurants, theaters, popular European entertainers, women dressed in Western skirts, and carry-out food.

Turkey remained neutral as the European skies began to darken in the 1930s. It became a pathway for Eastern European Jewish refugees, fleeing the Balkans for Israel. This story has often been told, but Charles King chronicles some of the horrors of that exile during the Second World War. The Pera Palace Hotel shared in that terror. In March of 1941 a bomb went off in the hotel’s lobby causing much damage and killing staff and patrons. Most likely it had been planted amongst the luggage of British diplomats exiting Sofia when Bulgaria entered the war on the German side.

The Pera Palace Hotel has been restored to its earlier grandeur by a firm from Dubai that specializes in luxury hotel accommodations.















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